Football takes on added meaning at Navy

10/15/2004 - Navy Midshipmen

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Forty years is a long time. It's a long time if you're in the desert with Moses -- by Biblical reckoning, the first man to fail to ask for directions -- and it's a long time if you're in the Navy locker room, preparing to play Notre Dame.

The Midshipmen have lost forty consecutive games to the Irish, the longest current streak in college football. They have lost routs. They have lost near-routs. The last two years, they have lost late in anything but a rout. In 2002, Navy led by eight points with five minutes to play and lost, 30-23. Last year, Irish kicker D.J. Fitzpatrick hit a 40-yard field goal as time expired to give Notre Dame a 27-24 victory.

Those losses, and Navy's 5-0 record, have given more ballast to the annual hope that this will be the year. The Midshipmen play the Irish (4-2) Saturday at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

"It's getting closer and closer and closer," senior fullback Kyle Eckel said. "Everybody is saying, 'This is the year.' You can't think about that."

With a win, Navy would drive a stake through their own personal 1918, give themselves a genuine opportunity to go 11-0, their first undefeated season since 1926, and make the bowl system look more ridiculous than it does on its own. There are 56 bowl berths out there, and all of them are spoken for by I-A conferences. Navy, an independent, could do more for the number 57 than anyone since Heinz Steak Sauce.

It goes without saying that the current players, born halfway through the streak, give or take a rout, don't carry the burden of all 40 losses.

"I've been here for two games," said coach Paul Johnson, who took a program that went winless in 2001, went 2-10 in 2002, and 13-5 since. "I'll take credit for those two. The other 38, someone else can have."

Navy football players don't think much about the streak, either. For one thing, the art of survival at any service academy is how to cram 28 hours of work into the 24-hour day, especially during this "Ex Week", short for what civilian schools call midterms.

For another, getting e-mails from former teammates and classmates who are serving all over the globe, including in the war in Iraq, has a way of focusing your attention on what's important.

What's important is not just beating Notre Dame per se, but what a victory over the Irish would mean to Navy personnel around the world.

"We played with the guys before us," senior slotback Frank Divis said. "We get e-mails from them, telling us what they're doing, saying, 'Hey, we got the score!' They are doing what they were called to do. You can tell how much (football) means, not only to yourself, but to the men and women who are out there fighting."

Divis grew up in the Cleveland area, the son of a mailman who loved Notre Dame. His basement, Divis said Wednesday, still has Notre Dame posters on the wall. His father used to make the pilgrimage with him, his two younger brothers and some cousins to the Irish spring game every year.

Johnson says semi-seriously this week that none of his players so much as received a recruiting letter from Notre Dame. Since then, at least two players have said publicly that they did. Eckel smiles as he recollected it.

"I got a few more from them. That was pretty exciting," says the senior. "I never watched too much of college football. I grew up around Philadelphia. It was the Eagles, Eagles, Eagles."

The 5-foot-11, 240-pound Eckel rushed for 1,249 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, and has 387 yards and six touchdowns this year. He has drawn enough attention from pro scouts that Navy hopes he will become the first graduate of the academy to be drafted since 1993.

Before Eckel leaves, he would like to beat Notre Dame, and he would like to win a bowl game. Disciplined as the Navy players are, they haven't begun to think about the havoc they could wreck in the bowl system. An 11-0 Navy team without a bowl game would make college football look foolish.

The Academy is reduced to waiting for a bowl berth to open, which inevitably happens when a conference cannot supply a team to every bowl it has made a deal with. Last season, Navy played in the Houston Bowl because the Southeastern Conference failed to have eight teams finish with the necessary .500 record or better.

The Midshipmen lost to Texas Tech, 38-14, which is not nearly as important a statistic to bowl chairmen as the 20,000 fans that the Academy brought to Houston.
This season, the odds are higher that a bowl berth will open because teams are playing only 11 games, not the 12 that they played in 2003. That means there's one fewer game in which to get six wins. Last year, three teams that had a 5-6 record through 11 games won their 12th and went to a bowl: Kansas, Northwestern, and California (the Bears played 13 regular-season games and went 7-6).

Already, the Pac-10's chance of filling all seven of its contracted berths is looking shaky, which would leave open the Silicon Valley Classic against a WAC team. The SEC may again have trouble scraping together eight teams with winning records.

"One of the (team's) goals is to go to a bowl game and win," Eckel says. "But that goal is set up by all the goals that come before it. Nobody is thinking about that now. If we win games, that stuff will take of itself. We don't decide that stuff. We decide how much effort we can give."

Besides, it's hard to believe that any bowl game would mean as much to Navy, its players and its sailors around the world as a victory over Notre Dame. The streak comes up for renewal Saturday.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.